Smooth transition to college should start early in life

As fall quickly approaches, so does the time for which many parents and students have long been waiting — some would say, dreading — the first day of college.

Your child’s departure for college is a monumental step and one that you can start preparing for when your child is just taking his or her first steps, says a Washington University in St. Louis expert on the college experience.

“The journey from cradle to campus is filled with countless little steps — each an opportunity to prepare for letting go,” says Karen Levin Coburn, assistant vice chancellor for students and dean for the freshman transition at Washington University.

“One of the keys to a successful transition to college life, both for parents and students, is starting the letting go process early in life,” says Coburn, who is co-author of the acclaimed book “Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years.” In its fourth edition, “Letting Go” has sold more than 300,000 copies.

Coburn provides the following tips to making the letting go process happen more smoothly for both parent and child:

Take a deep breath before you act. Give your child a chance to work things out. “Even a crying infant eventually learns to fall asleep without being held. When your homesick freshman calls in tears, listen and give her a chance to work things out,” Coburn says.

Help your child learn to negotiate conflicts. “Encouraging your toddler to use words rather than grab her shovel back from another child in the sandbox may be the first lesson in the art of conflict resolution. When a freshman is learning to live with a stranger, a gentle reminder of these skills may be just what is needed.”

Help your child learn to cope with disappointment. Empathize with your grade school age child when he isn’t invited to a birthday party or is the last one picked for the kickball team. “Instead of trying to ‘fix it,'” says Coburn, “help him to move on. The high school star athlete may become a bench warmer in college, and the high school academic star may struggle for a ‘B’ or ‘C’ at the university and those coping skills will make all the difference.”

Support your child’s interests and passions. You may have been hoping for a home filled with the sound of music, but instead of the piano your son is mad about metalsmithing. “When your pre-med daughter announces she’s switching to art history, she needs you to encourage her for who she is becoming, not who you thought she would be,” Coburn says.

Help your child learn to solve problems and advocate for himself. A quick fix from a rescuing parent may feel like a temporary relief for both parent and child, but the Little League dad who yells at the referee for the bad call that struck out his child doesn’t help the child learn to solve problems or gain confidence. “College students grow when parents listen to their problems and help them strategize, rather than jump in for the rescue,” she says.

Encourage your child to dream big dreams and set achievable goals. Support your middle-schooler’s dreams of running a marathon, but help her first achieve her 5K goal. “Engage your college student in dialogue — not just about grades — but what she hopes to explore and learn. Encourage her to set goals each semester.”

Loosen the reins a little at a time. Increase your child’s freedom and responsibility a little more each year. “Once he leaves for college he’ll be deciding when and how much to sleep and eat — when he’ll go out and with whom, where he’ll go and when he’ll return; what, where and how long he’ll study. Let him learn to use this freedom and responsibility while still under your wing.”

Teach your child to manage money. “During the early years piggy banks, allowances and household jobs are tools to teach about money management. When teenagers are allowed to make choices about the money they’ve saved, reality sets in. Before they leave for college, teach them about the pitfalls of multiple credit cards and how to manage a budget,” Coburn says.

Help your child learn to manage time. “When a parent tells a child at play that he has five minutes until he needs to put away toys before dinner, this may be the first in many steps towards time management. An alarm clock comes next. For the high school student it’s learning the consequences for getting too little sleep or being late for an appointment. The college student who knows how to manage time — without parental nagging — has a big advantage.”

Be a coach. From the “I do it myself” mantra of toddlers, to the emphatically independent stance of college students, young people often need encouragement to seek the help they need. That’s where parents come in. “Learn about the university’s resources,” Coburn says. “Coach your college-age child to use the tutoring center, or seek out a professor or counselor or advisor. Support your child’s emerging independence by coaching him to take action on his own behalf.”

Remain an anchor. Encourage your child to turn to you in good times and bad. Stay steady even when your child is shaky. “When you are a parent of a toddler sitting on a park bench watching with joy as your child explores the playground — not hovering anxiously, but not lost in the newspaper or a cell phone conversation either — you provide a safe place for your toddler to touch base — a place for a hug when he falls — a place for admiration when she masters something new. And as the parent of a college student, you can provide a familiar and safe haven, an anchor in a new and unfamiliar sea, a place for solace and encouragement and admiration.”

Finally, when you drop your “emerging adult” at college, remember she is taking you with her. “Though she may not admit it to you, she will quote things you’ve said — and recount things you’ve shown her. Resist your temptation to give one last lecture on all the things you fear you have forgotten to teach him during the past 18 years. He has been listening more than he will let you know. Your child will continue to turn to you for support and guidance — and as one college student put it to a group of parents of freshmen, ‘Sometimes we want your advice, and sometimes we don’t. We just won’t tell you which time is which.'”